- Trip comes after increase in violent attacks in Bangladesh
- Three militants killed in raid, Dhaka police say on weekend
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Bangladesh to offer U.S. help as the government confronts growing extremism that’s resulted in deadly attacks against locals and foreigners and raised concerns Islamic State is putting down roots in the country.
In meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and others during the one-day visit, Kerry may present new military and law-enforcement support. He’ll also meet opposition leaders who argue the government has used the extremist threat to crack down on political opponents.
Hasina’s government is seeking to project an image of order in the weeks since five attackers killed 22 people, mostly foreigners, at a bakery in the capital Dhaka. The globe trotting Kerry has never visited Bangladesh, and his decision to stop here reflects how the attacks have sharpened U.S. focus on the predominantly Muslim country as a potential Islamic State breeding ground.
"The Dhaka attack did create a strong impression for many in the U.S. and elsewhere that if left to fester, ISIS will plant roots in South Asia,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
The U.S. and Bangladesh have long-standing counter terrorism and security programs, and their dialogue has intensified in recent months, a senior State Department official told reporters before the visit. The official said Kerry would speak to Bangladeshi leaders to see what more the U.S. can do to bolster that relationship. They asked not to be identified, citing government policy.
The Dhaka attack, which the assailants broadcast on the Internet and was later claimed by Islamic State, spooked investors who have helped make Bangladesh the world’s second largest garment manufacturer behind China. That has raised fears that annual growth, projected to be more than 6 percent this year, may falter. Three militants, including the mastermind of the July attack, were killed in a raid, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police said in a statement on August 27.
The U.S. wants to ensure the group doesn’t expand its network outside the Middle East to places like Bangladesh as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi forces drove the group’s fighters from Fallujah in June and are next seeking to confront it in Mosul.
Police also continue to investigate the disappearance of dozens of young men feared to have been radicalized by Islamic State. Some of the men who staged the attack on the bakery grew up in wealthy families and had shown no signs of extremism before the attack. Five of six of them were killed in the standoff that followed.
In a video released days after the attack, Islamic State promised more assaults. “This will repeat, repeat and repeat until you lose and we win,” a man says in the video. The group has claimed responsibility for several other incidents in Bangladesh.
While officials acknowledge Islamic extremist groups in Bangladesh may have links to outsiders, the government denies that Islamic State is operating there on its own. Instead it says the extremism is largely homegrown and has been fomented by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Hasina’s government points to a wave of killings that targeted some 40 secular and moderate bloggers and others as further evidence of the opposition’s agenda. The opposition denies the claim and says her government is using the fear of extremism to harass or limit its supporters as part of a campaign that has included thousands of arrests.
Kerry will also meet with BNP leader Khaleda Zia, whose party boycotted parliamentary elections in 2014.
“I hope U.S. involvement will temper some of the real issues that plague the government, including issues around rule of law, extrajudicial killings and disappearances," Amarasingam said.